The Misunderstood Turkey Vulture

Turkey vulture

The most abundant vulture in the Americas, the Turkey Vulture is often misunderstood and even feared. But this bird is a friend of the earth, cleaning up carrion and ridding the ground of bacteria and decay.

 

Often seen soaring in open landscapes, Cathartes aura have a large wing span of 63-72 inches (160-183 cm). A gregarious species, the flocks (aka kettles) use air thermals to gain height, perspective, in their hunt for carrion.

Turkey vulture pair on fence, drying wings

As scavengers, they feed almost exclusively on carrion. When not soaring, they fly closer to the ground, using their keen olfactory sense to detect the smell of gas (ethyl mercaptan) produced by a dead, decaying animal.

 

For many years they were mistakenly thought to spread disease; over-hunting of this bird caused its near extinction. The population has recovered admirably, due to the legal protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and similar protections in Canada and Mexico. Vultures in Africa are still misunderstood, and some species currently face steep decline.

Turkey vulture, adult

More turkey vulture (“TV” to birders) info at Wikipedia.  Range map below.

 

So they are misunderstood as carriers of disease, when in reality they are cleaning up the bacteria that can cause disease. Other misunderstood facts of the turkey vulture include:

  • Their name. They’re not buzzards. North Americans often call them buzzards, but that’s a mistake. In the Old World there are true Buzzards, in a different genus.
  • Their diet. They don’t eat live animals. I have a friend who was convinced that the turkey vultures soaring near his hilltop home were going to carry away his beloved lap dog. It’s possible he watched the flying monkey scene in “The Wizard of Oz” one too many times.
  • Their intention. If you see a group of them flying overhead, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is something dead they are circling. Sometimes they are just riding the thermals.
  • Their identification. Due to their population prevalence, you will usually see turkey vultures above you more than any other raptor. People often look up, see a turkey vulture, and think it’s a hawk or eagle. While turkey vultures have big wing spans and cruise quietly above, they are not at all related.

Turkey vulture nestling

 

There are two easy ways to know you’re looking at a turkey vulture. One is  their dark-brown-and-white feather pattern and featherless red head, as you see in the first photo. Other raptors have more nuanced patterns, and feathered heads that are not bright red.

 

Secondly, they are the only raptor to fly with their wings in a “V” shape; hawks and eagles fly with their wings flat across. This V-shaped flying causes the turkey vulture to teeter and rock in flight, which is identifiable from hundreds of feet away.

 

Their name Cathartes means “purifier.” What they eat and have the stomach acids to digest prevents other animals from consuming unhealthy decaying critters, making the earth a cleaner, safer place.

 

Next time you look up and see a big bird teetering in flight, salute this purifying super flyer.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Turkey vulture, immature

Turkeyvulturerange.jpg

Cathartes aura range. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

 

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A New Year of Peace

Ulysses Butterfly, Australia

On this holiday, one that is shared across the globe, here are a few of earth’s wild and worldly inhabitants to remind us how to find peace.

 

Enjoy the gifts of food

Purple Finch, California, USA

and water, and help those who do not have it.

Zebra, Zambia, Africa

 

Take in the glories of nature wherever it appears.

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, Costa Rica, Central America

 

Practice courage and perseverance,

Lioness and African Buffalo, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

and navigate the dark.

Northern Potoo, Mexico

 

Paddle through adversity.

Domestic cattle, Belize, Central America

 

Take time to relax.

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

 

Find whimsy

Hippopotamus, Okavango Delta, Botswana, Africa

and be flexible.

Spectacled Flying Fox Bat, Australia

 

May each day begin with song

Common Yellowthroat, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin, USA

and dance,

Blue-footed Boobies, Galapagos Isl., South America

with times when you shine

Galapagos Sea Lion, Galapagos Isl., South America

and sparkle.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica, Central America

 

Take comfort in your community

Parrolets, Mexico

yet reach out beyond it.

White Rhinos, Kenya, Africa

 

Demonstrate patience and compassion to the young

Thornicroft giraffe mother with baby, Zambia, Africa

and old.

Giant Tortoise, Galapagos Isl., South America

 

Embrace these basic elements of life,

and you will have peace and love

every day of the year.

Lambs, California, USA

Thank you, my friends, for another great year of sharing.

Written by Jet Eliot

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Wishing you…

…the sweet nectar of life

this holiday season and

throughout the new year.

Tufted Coquette, male, Trinidad

One of the world’s tiniest hummingbirds, the tufted coquette is about the size of a credit card. They live in rainforests and gardens, in a few countries in and around South America. Hummingbirds are a symbol of joy.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay

 

Yacht club, Angel Island silhouetted in background

Otis Redding was watching the tides roll in on “Frisco Bay” in 1967, and here we are, fifty years later, still celebrating the tides of the San Francisco Bay.

 

At this time of year, a popular attraction and holiday tradition are the decorated boats. I noticed every night after Thanksgiving, increasing numbers of moored boats were colorfully lit.

Tiburon overview, the marina with decorated boats (center)

 

As we move further into December, the lighted boat parades kick off the holiday season. San Francisco’s boat parade is tonight on Fisherman’s Wharf, we went to the Sausalito Lighted Boat Parade last weekend.

 

It was a really fun event. There was music, decorations, a judging panel for the parade entries, kids’ activities, and an after-party with food, drink, and dancing. Various boat tours were offered as well. After the parade, fireworks capped off the night.

 

Athena and I and our friends were content five piers away from the blaring music, on a small pier with a front-row view. It was the houseboat pier; houseboat dwellers use it to ferry to their floating houses.

 

Before the parade started,  I was entertained by the houseboat dwellers bantering, talking. They stood in the dark, surrounded by a circle of small, inflatable boats tied around the pier.

Sausalito Boat Parade

One man went back and forth numerous times with several full backpacks. Our little wooden pier trembled with each of his heavy steps, as if we were all on a boat together. I think he had just done his laundry ashore. When he paddled away into the dark night, his tiny boat was loaded down, and the bay water was precariously close to seeping in.

 

That night the harbor hosted houseboat dwellers, parade watchers, and yacht owners…we were an eclectic group. A drone buzzed over our heads.

 

Then the parade started. Some boats were brightly lit, even gaudy, some were elegant and simple. Some had a theme, like a circus, or lighted marine mammals; others were covered with every light and bauble they could find with no particular theme. There were about 40 or 50 lit boats, and they were all beautiful as they slowly cruised by.

Sausalito Boat Parade

One of my favorites was a boisterous boat brimming with people, colored lights, and a mariachi band.

 

Although the moving boats were a delight to observe, nighttime photography was nearly impossible. So a few nights later Athena and I visited two yacht club marinas to photograph the festooned boats anchored in the harbor.

 

Here was the real richness of the night sea: the sound of clanking masts and sloshing water, rippling reflections, the briny aroma, the docks covered with coiled ropes.

 

That night there were no parties or celebrations, just boats quietly bobbing.

 

Otis Redding was living on a houseboat in Sausalito when he wrote the lyrics for “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” He, too, probably used a small boat to get to his houseboat, transporting his laundered clothes.

 

All of us, in our different lifestyles, years apart…we sit on the docks of the bay, watching the ships roll in and the tides roll out.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Otis Redding singing “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”

Otis Redding (2).png

Otis Redding, 1967, courtesy Wikipedia

 

Cormorants and More, Richardson Bay

Cormorants in San Francisco Bay

Because they are common and widespread, sometimes I take cormorants for granted.  Then one day I found myself living on the San Francisco Bay, in temporary housing, and I witnessed some unique behavior.

 

In the Bay Area the double-crested cormorant is the prevalent species. They spend their day swimming and flying in search of fish, and can often be seen diving underwater for prey. They are excellent divers, and have webbed feet for fast underwater propulsion.

 

Wikipedia Double-crested Cormorant

 

On my first day here, standing on the balcony overlooking the bay, I noticed a very large flock of cormorants down at the water. There were hundreds of the black sea birds, and they were synchronistically flying in the same direction. They swirled together in a great dance, slightly above the water’s surface.

 

Most of us have observed individual cormorants on land, spreading their wings, drying out. But this enormous flock all swooping together was new to me.

I had many other tasks to contend with, while we sort out the remains of our fire-damaged property, so I was soon off to something else. But throughout the week I continued to notice this phenomenon. I was seeing it almost every day, and always in the early morning.

Cormorants, SF Bay, Streets of San Francisco in background

Cormorants are colonial nesters, and at night they roost in large groups. From the balcony I noticed they have a favorite sea wall, where they congregate. When they take off in the morning, they often do so together.

 

Then I learned why they fly together:  for better fishing.

 

Although they do not always flock in groups this large, when it does occur, they form a line. The line of birds, close to the water, follow the fish underwater and chase them. More cormorants opportunistically join the flock, sometimes thousands.

 

They often fly in a “V” shape and there is a hierarchy to the front line; sometimes there are hundreds, sometimes just a dozen. They surge and swoosh and make abrupt directional changes, always following the fish underwater.

 

If the fish escape the flying predators, the cormorants quickly disperse.

 

But if the cormorants are triumphant and succeed in snatching the fish, then there is much splashing.

 

Ornithological Study on the Cormorant Fishing Activity 

 

Double-crested Cormorant

I went down to the water one morning this week to photograph the big flocks. I didn’t find the huge flocks, but I watched thousands of cormorants heading out for a day of fishing.

 

And while I was photographing the cormorants, I spotted a sea lion. I was watching the sea lion, waiting for it to re-surface after a dive, when the most marvelous thing happened.

 

A whale surfaced right in front of me. It gave the characteristic sigh sound, of breathing air, and breached the water’s surface. I enjoyed one second of seeing the whale’s barnacled back, and then it disappeared. Based on the size and color, and since it is their migration time, I am quite certain it was a gray whale.

 

These are a few of the riches of Richardson Bay, a marine sanctuary on the northern edge of the San Francisco Bay. I’m going to be here for at least three months, and am looking forward to sharing more with you.

 

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

Double-crested Cormorants in Richardson Bay, SF Bay. Photo: Richard Hinz

 

The Bearded Bellbird

Bearded Bellbird, calling; Trinidad

Earlier this year we spent five nights in a Trinidad rainforest. While there, we were introduced to the Bearded Bellbird, a unique bird with a booming voice.

 

Named for the beard-like feathers on his throat, Procnias averano occur in a few areas of northern South America. See map below. Only the males have the “beard.”

 

The rainforest path we were on, Trinidad

A frugivorous bird, they feed on fruit and berries. They live high in the canopy, where you rarely see them…but always hear them.

 

The call is unmistakable, and loud, and carries very far. We heard it all day long and sometimes into the early evening:  a loud, staccato croaking that echoes throughout the forest.

 

Males make the call, insistently informing other bellbirds of their territory. The species is polygamous, and during mating season the male attracts the female with an elaborate song and dance. The rest of the year, like when we were there, they just project the croaking calls. Mating season or not, they spend 87% of daylight hours in calling territories within the forest.

 

Also on the trail: Golden Tegu Lizard

Click here for the sound recording, taken in the same rainforest where I was, at Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad.

 

Sometimes the bellbird’s call is incessant, like in this recording. But I never tired of it.

 

There are so many alien sounds in a rainforest, and it is often a surprise when you finally locate the creature. Some of the tiniest frogs can sound like huge, menacing mammals; while an animal that can kick your guts out, like the Australian cassowary, may have no warning call.

 

Agouti, Trinidad, watching us on the trail

Our first day there we were on a guided hike, and the guide took us right to the bird. The Bellbird was perched about 15′ off the ground (4.5 m). A couple of times I flinched from the racket.

 

For as loud and abrupt as the call was, I had imagined a larger bird. He was about the size of a pigeon, but for the volume he was projecting I expected an eagle. He shouted his croak for so long that finally, after everyone in our small group had observed and photographed from all angles, we left.

 

He was such a cool bird that the next day, sans guide, Athena and I went searching for the bellbird again. We went back down the same trail, following the bellowing croaks.

Bearded Bellbird, Trinidad

Everything seems so simple when you have a guide. Without the guide we somehow got off the main trail, lost in a dense forest.

 

Sweaty and bug-bitten, we eventually got back to the main trail, continued the bellbird pursuit for about a half hour. Regardless of how strikingly loud the call was, we could not find the bird anywhere. We have both been birding all over the world for 25 years, doggedly locating silent birds, tiny birds, and camouflaged birds deep in the brush. To not locate the caller of this loud and direct sound was stupefying.

 

But then a more important sound preempted the bird: the lunch bell.

 

So we reluctantly left the unfound bellbird, later learning another incredible feature of this bird: ventriloquism.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Violacious Euphonia, also on the trail

Procnias averano (Beaded Bellbird) range. Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

 

 

 

Black (as Night) Friday

Spotted Hyena, Zambia

This is the day in America when shoppers are enticed into stores for big sales. But for those of us who find greater value in fresh air and nature scenes, I thought it would be fun on this Friday to take you into the black night of Africa.

 

Except for the light of the moon, the nights are pitch black.

 

Giant Eagle Owl, Botswana aka Verreaux’s Owl

 

Safari Night Drive. One night in Zambia we were slowly driving along in the dark when our guide stopped and told us to get ready. We couldn’t hear or see anything, but he told us which way to face. Cameras went up.

 

Then he turned on the spotlight and right in front of us was a pool with about a dozen hippos quietly grazing on the water plants.

 

Hippo Pool, Zambia

 

Most of the time, guides keep the spotlight turned off to avoid disturbing the animals; they slowly drive the jeep with just parking lights.

 

With the spotlight off, all you can see are the animals’ eye-shine piercing through the deep dark. It is eerie to look out over a grass field and see dozens of those colored eyes looking at you. You don’t know if it’s a snarling hyena or an antelope.

 

You never ever step out of the vehicle.

 

Leopard, Zambia

 

The metallic-like colored dots are at various heights. Low to the ground are the hares, mongooses, rodents, and night birds. Several inches higher up are the small wild cats like civet or genet.

 

Genet, Tanzania

 

Gabon Nightjar, Zambia

 

Even on the blackest, darkest night, a good guide can identify the animal just by the eye shine. Eyes can be close together, far apart, and different colors according to species. Animal identification also depends on where the eyes are:  in tall grass, on tree limbs, in water, running, or not running.

 

We came across this leopard pair in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia. We saw them a couple of times, and at one point the male had caught a bird that hung limply from his jaws. They walked off to enjoy their midnight snack, and we never saw them again.

 

Leopards, Zambia

 

Wild Cat, Botswana — Ancestor to the Domestic House Cat

 

The elephant was one of my favorite experiences in all of life. The photo is not the greatest, but the memory is. That night we were awakened by a stormy rustling.

 

It turned out to be a mother and her calf just outside our flimsy door. What sounded like a rain storm was the mother elephant tearing apart a tree, eating the leaves.

 

We remained silently watching, not making a sound.

 

Elephant, Zambia, the structure with windows on the left is our cottage

The story: The Night the Elephants Came to Visit

 

Here’s to enjoying the wild mysteries of the night.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

African Civit